The Pros and Cons of palm oil

14 March 2017

Recently in the European Parliament the Environment Committee voted on a report about palm oil and deforestation. The Committee, of which I am a member, passed the report and it will now be voted on by the full parliament sitting in Strasbourg, probably in April.

Palm oil has been a major piece of work for both my staff and me over the last few months because I was the shadow rapporteur for the Socialist Group on this report.  Being a shadow rapporteur is an interesting role and involves sitting round the table with the rapporteurs and staff from the other Parliamentary political groups and thrashing out the actual report wording, line-by-line. Negotiations can become protracted over the course of many meetings over several months.  As no political group in the parliament has a majority support for any proposal has to be sought from across the political spectrum until enough votes can be mustered to be confident of an amendment passing.  This approach makes the work of the European Parliament more like that of the House of Lords. Consensus is the aim rather than the adversarial approach of our own House of Commons.

The EU’s Environment Committee felt it was appropriate to spend time looking at palm oil because its production has been driving the felling of rainforests in several developing countries mainly in Southeast Asia such as Indonesia. This has been bad news for the climate, indigenous people and biodiversity, including for animals like the orangutan. 

Palm oil is the most widely consumed vegetable oil on the planet, and is in about half of all packaged products sold in the supermarket including margarine, shampoo and chocolate. As the third largest market for palm oil the European Union, including the UK, cannot duck its responsibility on this issue.  

With demand for palm oil likely to double by 2050 and with 46% of total palm oil imported by the EU being used for the production of biodiesel, the Committee was of the opinion that we need to act. We have therefore proposed new measures to encourage sustainable production, to allow only sustainable palm oil into the EU market, to phase out the use of palm oil in biofuels, and to label products containing palm oil thereby enabling customers to make informed choices.

The biodiesel angle has been particularly contentious. Many MEPs feel uncomfortable with crops such as palm oil, soy and rapeseed which could be used to feed humans, in a world where many go hungry, being used instead to make fuel for cars.

Environmental campaigners argue that on average, biodiesel from virgin vegetable oil leads to around 80% higher emissions than the fossil diesel it replaces. This is based on biodiesel’s lifecycle emissions, which include land-use change emissions (ILUC). ILUC occurs when new or existing cropland is used for biofuel feedstock production, thereby causing carbon sinks to be opened. 

As a consequence of being a rapporteur you get lobbied.  I don’t have a problem with lobbyists as long as it’s all conducted in a transparent way.  As an MEP I won’t meet any organisation that is not on the EU Transparency Register and I won’t be involved in any secret meetings outside of the Parliament.  Most such meetings occur in my office with staff present and it’s an opportunity, all part of the democratic process, for industry or environmental or farming or government representatives to set out their arguments. After all, there are always at least two sides to every story.  In reply I can ask questions, challenge, and probe and hopefully end up with a better understanding of the subject I’m working on.  

We were fortunate that with palm oil a variety of organisations from the environmental and business sectors were keen to find common solutions. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil included big retailers such as Boots, Marks and Spencer and Sainsbury’s, with NGOs such as WWF, and the Sumatran Orangutan Society acting as a voice for conservation. This was a great example of how different interest groups can come together to solve problems for the benefit of all. Their contribution means that the final report should help to save rainforests and wildlife for generations to come.

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